List of candidates much stronger at one position than spread over two spots
The Oakland A’s took it almost all the way the offseason buzzer, but they finally added a real shortstop to their 2021 contending roster.
After losing mainstay Marcus Semien to free agency, the A’s had no clear answer for the shortstop position this season. There were a few in-house candidates who could maybe cut it there, and a couple prospects who might be ready by 2022, but it was anyone’s guess who would actually be there Opening Day. Now we know. It’ll be Elvis Andrus, bringing with him a dozen years of MLB experience and a glove that nobody questions.
Andrus isn’t an All-Star anymore, but when healthy he’s a perfectly decent starter, turning a lineup hole into average production at one of the toughest spots on the diamond to fill. Any acquisition can always go wrong, but in terms of spring training competitions and penciling in the roster for April, this is one matter that’s settled.
But what about second base? Oakland finished last year with Tommy La Stella at the keystone, but he left as a free agent too. Figuring out shortstop was only half of this winter’s middle infield conundrum.
Now that the A’s have a few dollars to work with from the Andrus trade, in which the Rangers sent over quite a stack of cash, we can at least open ourselves to the possibility of adding a new player for second base. In reality they appear to be focusing resources on the bullpen, but let’s do a quick due diligence.
The interesting free agents are all gone by now, but there’s still a clear trade candidate in Adam Frazier. The Pirates are dumping everything that isn’t bolted down, and Frazier is available. He’s sort of like a lefty Chad Pinder, but with better 2B defense and a lower strikeout rate, which would be a perfect fit on this roster. At a $4.3 million salary, and with an extra year of team control in 2022, he’d be within Oakland’s budgetary range.
But for now, the word is that the A’s are “comfortable” with their in-house options at second, per insider Martin Gallegos. There are four clear front-runners, plus a couple more depth names, as well as a pair of top shortstop prospects who could emerge as the summer heats up. That means the Opening Day second baseman is probably on this list.
He began 2020 as Oakland’s starting second baseman and put up replacement-level production, eventually giving way to La Stella. You know what you’re getting here — he won’t hit much but he’ll draw enough walks to get on base at a useful clip, and his defense will rate negatively but he’ll make some smart and/or impressive plays along the way. He also bats left-handed, on a team that leans heavily to the right at the plate.
- Kemp, 2020: .247/.363/.301, 98 wRC+, 0 HR, 3 SB, 13.2% BB, 12.3% Ks
The 29-year-old is best cast as a role player on the bench, but we have seen the A’s begin a season with him starting at 2B and finish it by winning the division. There was some crucial yadda yadda yadda in between those two endpoints, but it’s still a factually true statement. It could happen again, whether because another midseason upgrade presents itself like it did last year or because Kemp himself is enough to fill the final spot surrounded by a lineup of stars.
And for what it’s worth, a pesky middle infield of Andrus (only 13.5% Ks last year) and Kemp (12.3%) relentlessly putting the ball in play might infuse an element of 2015 Royals into this club, which it’s lacked in recent years and could benefit from.
He’s sort of like a righty Adam Frazier, but Pinder isn’t as good defensively at 2B and he also strikes out more at the plate.
Pinder has some power and one of the highest exit velocities on the team. However, due to low OPB marks, he’s only graded out as a league-average hitter for his career (98 wRC+) and was below-average the last couple years in limited duty. On the bright side, he exploded in the playoffs last year — by the end he was carrying the team as their hottest bat, including driving in the series-winning run against the White Sox and leading a comeback in their only ALDS victory against the Astros.
- Pinder, 2020 playoffs: 7-for-22, 1.021 OPS, 2 HR, 1 double, 7 RBI, 3 BB, 6 Ks
Entering age 29, he’s best cast as a platoon player who starts against lefties, which could make him a sensible pairing with Kemp. He’s also best cast as an outfielder defensively, where statistically he’s valued as a huge plus instead of a notable minus, but there are already three righties entrenched out there and he only joined them for four innings last year.
But emotions are a hell of a drug, and it’s tough to shake the memory of Super Pinder last October. It was just a clutch small-sample fluke, right? Of course it was. But what if it wasn’t? I mean, it was, but, y’know. I’m just sayin’ here. Every so often a small sample is just the first step in a breakout. Surely not this time. Probably.
I don’t think Pinder will open as an everyday starter at 2B, and I’m not saying he should. But if the A’s saw something they liked and rolled the dice on it for a month? I’d be curious to watch.
He was a Rule 5 draft pick last year, and managed to stick on the roster long enough to remain in the organization permanently. He didn’t play much and didn’t hit much, and he’s only got 26 games of Triple-A under his belt, but he has a skill set that fits the A’s well.
The 27-year-old brings a similar offensive profile to Kemp, as a left-handed batter who has no power but can use plate discipline as a weapon to get on base. The lefty part is important because there will likely be at least six righties in the everyday lineup (Chapman, Murphy, Laureano, Canha, Piscotty, Andrus), and the OBP is key because someone needs to be on when the sluggers hit their homers. On defense he’s adequate but not a standout.
- Machin, 2019 AA: .294/.386/.403, 129 wRC+, 6 HR, 12.7% BB, 11.4% Ks
- Machin, 2020 MLB: .206/.296/.238, 59 wRC+, 0 HR, 11.3% BB, 14.1% Ks
Every Rule 5 pick is by definition an aggressive assignment to the majors, so it wasn’t surprising nor dealbreaking to see Machin struggle in his sporadic 71 plate appearances in Oakland. The encouraging part was that he was good at exactly the things he was supposed to be good at — drawing some walks, and avoiding strikeouts. If he can keep doing that, along with last year’s 89.9 mph exit velocity, he could pan out as a hitter in the bigs. Statcast gave him a .331 xwOBA, far above the league’s .312 average.
It would probably require a breakout spring for the Hitting Machin to earn the job out of camp, and the most likely route could including getting some time in Triple-A first. But the A’s kept him for a reason, and his performance last year was far more encouraging than his surface numbers suggest. Don’t rule him out for today, and don’t count him out for tomorrow.
He was a shortstop in college, then played mostly third base in the minors, and then got a crash-course as a second baseman in 2019. All the while, he kept hitting at every level of the system, except for one year in the unrepresentative doldrums of Nashville.
Then the 2020 minor league season got canceled and he had to sit out an entire year of game action, making him a somewhat forgotten man on the depth chart. But he’s still here, and he’s officially getting a look in spring training.
- Neuse, 2019 AAA: .317/.389/.550, 126 wRC+, 27 HR, 10.0% BB, 23.6% Ks
- Neuse, 2019 MLB: .250/.295/.304, 63 wRC+, 0 HR, 6.6% BB, 31.1% Ks
His first 61 plate appearances didn’t produce much in 2019, but even then he kept his preternaturally high BABIP with a .368 mark — just like he has for his entire pro career everywhere he’s played, even Nashville. Of course, BABIP can’t help you if you strike out instead of putting the ball in play, so he’ll need to make more contact in his next MLB action.
Like Machin, the 26-year-old Neuse would need a big spring to actually break camp with the 2B job, and as a righty hitter he doesn’t get a bonus for bringing platoon balance. But he’s part of the conversation, with a promising bat and the defensive tools to handle the position, and if he doesn’t earn it in March then we could still see him later in the summer.
There’s one more name on the 40-man roster, for now at least. Nate Orf made it into six games for Oakland last season, mostly as a late-inning replacement but with one start at shortstop. He’s on the roster as emergency middle infield defensive depth, and his offensive profile is the same idea as Kemp and Machin — plate discipline, good OBP, low power, but from the right side of the plate.
The A’s also signed Pete Kozma this winter as a minor league free agent. He last played in the majors in 2018, and was last an MLB regular in 2013, but he’s still only turning 33 in April. He’s a shortstop and he’s got experience, so he’s worth a mention even though he’s not on the roster at this moment.
You could make an argument that Nick Allen could start in the majors right now just to get his glove on the field, though it might be a less appealing plan at 2B than it would have been at SS. More likely is that the A’s No. 3 prospect will begin by getting his first experience in the upper-minors, and we’ll see him later in the year or in 2022 — and when that happens, it would presumably mean him taking over SS and pushing Andrus to 2B.
Behind Allen is Logan Davidson, the club’s 1st-round draft pick from 2019, who hasn’t even played full-season ball yet due to the pandemic. The switch-hitting shortstop is one of the Top 10 prospects in the organization but still needs time in the minors, though you’d have to think he could move quickly if he hits the ground running. He and Allen are ages 23 and 22, respectively.
Assuming the A’s roll with the incumbent crew instead of making a new acquisition, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out the front-runners for 2B entering the spring. This is the same group they had at this time last year (minus Franklin Barreto), and the plan they went with then was a platoon of Kemp and Pinder. That’s the safe bet for now.
But things can change in a Cactus League positional battle, and it doesn’t sound like anything is set in stone. The important thing is that this list of candidates no longer needs to cover both middle infield positions, because the tougher one has been accounted for. It was worrisome to think of cobbling together both a shortstop and a second baseman, but just a 2B? They can handle that.
Kemp and Pinder would be a fine platoon, and a high floor for the position. Machin or Neuse could break out and seize the job, turning the keystone into a plus. Or Allen could arrive earlier than expected and shake up the whole picture. But the middle infield, including second base, is no longer a hole in the contending roster, any more than it was last spring. It’s covered adequately for now, with some upside waiting on deck.